Tag Archive | "Howe Gelb"

Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box Set

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Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box Set

Posted on 09 January 2014 by Joe

Howe Gelb appears somehow ill suited to a solo career. The Giant Sand frontman seems just too much of a sociable guy to go it alone and it’s no surprise to find that the best of this eight CD box set collection of Gelb’s solo work is not solo at all. Instead what emerges is one of the music industry’s best collaborators with an ability to skip merrily across notions of genre, particularly with the Voice of Praise Gospel Choir on this set’s highlight ‘Sno Angel Like You.


Even Dreaded Brown Recluse (1991), his first solo album, is created out of collaboration rather than a search for isolation. With tour promoters at the time concerned that Giant Sand’s already prolific output was diluting their ability to regularly pull in crowds Gelb hit upon the idea of releasing a solo album. That way tour promoters stayed happy and the band’s steady income from shows remained intact.

This album is also essentially a Giant Sand album in all but name, featuring its members John Convertino and Joey Burns and having the same eclectic Giant Sand mix of country, blues, punk, folk and jazz. As a collection it’s got an even looser feel than Giant Sand albums of the time, but there are still plenty of highlights interspersed in Gelb’s weaker flights of fancy.

The country twang of Picture Shows and the acoustic feel to Loretta and the Insect World sound great here and are among the best. Special mention goes to the full band feel of Warm Storm, another to add to the great Gelb cannon. But then there’s the grunge dirge of Actually Faxing Sophie and the weak Vienna 2-Step Throw Away, Vigdis and Blanket for Tina that bring down the quality and are among the more skippable moments.


Hisser (1998) feels a little more solo, recorded on a four track at his home while as a single parent. But band mates and friends pop by and add weight and company to the album’s low-key tracks when needed. In terms of song writing this also features some of Gelb’s finest works, especially 4 Door Maverick, which he later reused for the Alegrias album, but more of that later. This track is part of a fine run of acoustic guitar tracks early on in the album through to Propulsion that are a delight. Creeper is another highlight and features a pump organ that he picked up for $35 dollars. As with Dreaded Brown Recluse, Hisser takes a turn midway through into more eclectic, odder jazz piano territory. But if you are even reading this then you will more than likely be a Gelb fan already and fully versed in his genre skipping tendancies.


Confluence (2001) was born out of Giant Sand’s split, when the classic line up featuring Burns and Convertino moved on to form Calexico and “everything turned to shit” according to Gelb, via music journalist Sylvie Simmon’s notes that accompany this box set. Convertino and others still appear on the album but this has far more of a solo feel and I’m not sure Gelb is enjoying the experience one bit. In a word, this is depressing. Saint Conformity and 3 Sisters set the sombre tone for the whole album, which is the least appealing in this box set. Nevertheless it does contain one of my favourite Gelb songs among this whole set, Blue Marble Girl, featuring beautiful backing vocals from his second wife Sofie Albertsen Gelb.


Things look up for 2003’s The Listener. Gelb has reformed Giant Sand with musicians from Scandanavia and he’s happy as Larry. Gelb is in a good place and the music is upbeat and at times even silly. Mainly with a piano lounge singer feel to it he comes across as a kind of Lou Reed with a sense of humour. It feels a little like a vanity project, the only time his solo work veers into that territory, but at least he’s having fun and that’s a joy to hear on this album. Among the highlights are Felonius, Cowboy Boots and the dramatic shuffling tango of Torue (Tango De La Tongue), which just about makes up for the lack of a killer tune.


Three years later comes the key album in this collection, Sno Angel Like You, which is one of our Top 100 albums of all time. This 2006 album showcases an almighty partnership, with the Voices of Praise gospel choir, whose vocals breathing new life into old songs, such as Neon Filler, and on a whole bunch of new tracks just perfect for this spiritual feel. Gelb’s songwriting has always at its best been about subtlety, with the right turn of phrase or catchy chorus almost effortlessly slipped into his songs. Here those traits are given some rare bombast and its an uplifting experience that adds a whole new dimension to his music. A perfect match. The live album ‘Sno Angel Winging It (Live) is a nice addition to this box set as well, and was especially nice for me to hear as I managed to get to see Gelb and Voice of Praise perform this album at the time.


A few more Giant Sand albums and tours pass by but in 2011 he’s back on the solo trail again and involved in another sterling collaboration, this time with gypsy musicians from Spain. As with ‘Sno Angel the music on Alegrias is at its heart Americana but using the distinct sounds of his collaborators to Gelb’s advantage. Recorded largely in Cordoba, Spain, the entire album is wonderful thanks to the classy playing of guitarist Raimondo Amador. Among many highlights are Notoriety and Blood Orange, which feature backing vocals from Prin La La and Lonna Kelley respectively

To close the box set Some Piano, a collection of piano releases brought together in one CD, is included. This takes me a little out of my indie rock and Americana comfort zone. It’s essentially a series of jazz piano instrumentals and while a nice inclusion in showing the breadth of his talent and style its not one I’ll be listening to repeatedly.

There are two ways of approaching this box set for those wanting to hear more Gelb. One is to embrace his eclecticism and varying quality of his releases, just buy it and discover the wheat from the chaff for yourself. The other is to just get ‘Sno Angel Like You and Alegrias, the two standout albums in his back catalogue, and marvel at how his best solo work is not solo at all.


by Joe Lepper


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Neko Case – Man

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Neko Case – Man

Posted on 13 June 2013 by Dorian

Neko Case is a bit of a Neon Filler favorite whether that be with her role in the New Pornographers, playing wonderful live sets or on her own solo albums.  The last of these was Middle Cyclone which made it in to our top ten albums list when released in 2009.

So we are very excited that she is back after more than four years to release The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You via ANTI on the 2nd September. Case says of the album:

“My brain wilderness is more dense and dangerous than I thought,” says Case. “It was an embarrassing and hilarious march, but I now feel like a more streamlined being. It’s a good feeling. Four years of my life took ten years hostage, then gave me back twelve.”

The album was executive-produced by Case and recorded at Wavelab in Tuscon, as well as Portland, Los Angeles and with Phil Palazzolo in Brooklyn. Tucker Martine, Case and Darryl Neudorf mixed the album, with backing by guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V. Ray, vocalist Kelly Hogan and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse. Other guests include M. Ward, Steve Turner, Howe Gelb, and members of The New Pornographers, My Morning Jacket, Calexico, Los Lobos and Visqueen. In addition to eleven new songs written by Case, The Worse Things Get… features a cover of ‘Afraid’ by Nico.

The first song from the album. ‘Man’, featuring M.Ward on guitar, is available to view below and gives good reason to be excited about what is likely to be one of the best albums of 2013.

By Dorian Rogers


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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

Posted on 03 July 2012 by Joe

Clocking in at well over an hour and with 19 tracks Howe Gelb’s latest Giant Sand album, Tucson, is far too long and lacking in substance to be included among the best of the  band’s stellar back catalogue.

The album’s label as a ‘country rock opera’ starts the alarm bells ringing, as this low-key and lengthy release pays homage to Tucson, where Gelb has lived for the last four decades, and revolves around the life of “a semi-grizzled man with overt boyish naivete” according to the press release.

There are nice flourishes, such as the horns and slide guitar on Forever and a Day and the party atmosphere on Caranito, but on too many tracks there is a lack of the inventive, soulful music Gelb has become renowned for on his excellent recent solo albums, such as last year’s Howe Gelb and A Band Of Gypsies album Alegrías or the best of the Giant Sand back catalogue.

Calling the band Giant Giant Sand may seem like a nice twist as he has assembled a larger than usual line up, of Giant Sand’s regular Sandanavian contingent  as well the likes of Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jon Villa. However, this large group fail to give the songs life. Too many are lacklustre and there’s no killer single that all great Giant Sand albums have.

Tucson is a pleasant enough listen as background music but lacks the wow factor that Gelb usually excels at.


by Joe Lepper


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Giant Sand – The Fire Records Reissues

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Giant Sand – The Fire Records Reissues

Posted on 19 January 2012 by Joe

Back in 2010 Fire Records began marking the 25th anniversary of Howe Gelb’s legendary alternative country band Giant Sand by re-issuing the bulk of their back catalogue. Since then each of their 16 albums between 1985 and 2004 have been released, with the task finally completed at the end of 2011 with the release of Backyard BBQ Broadcast (1994), Cover Magazine (2002) and Is All Over the Map (2004).

Looking back over this collection it is striking how eclectic Tucson, Arizona, based Giant Sand have been, from classic rock, to country, to punk to jazz and bar room blues. There’s even been a bit of  trip hop at times.

But whatever genre is covered one reassuring constant has been the presence of  the band’s founder, songwriter and singer Howe Gelb with his distinct American drawl, world view of music and humour.

Even though Giant Sand is undoubtedly Gelb’s band only a fool would belittle the influence of those members that have come and gone. Among the act’s best work was with its classic, long running line up of bassist indie rhythm section for hire Joey Burns and Drummer John Convertino. They left after Chore of Enchantment to focus on their increasingly successful other project Calexico. The pair’s huge influence over the band is not in doubt. Gelb is also clearly influenced by his many collaborators, from Pj Harvey to his friend and slide guitar maestro Rainer Ptacek, who was a member of Helb’s post punk band that predated Giant Sand, called Giant Sandworms. Ptacek tragically died of brain cancer in 1997.

With 16 albums to plough through I’m not going to spend reams of text analysing each one.  Instead I’ll pick out some of my highlights and those that could perhaps be required buying for a wide audience taking in Giant Sand completists to those with only a passing knowledge of the band. Fire Records are also planning to start a new reissue project focusing on Gelb’s six solo albums in 2012, something we will keep you updated about.

Chore of Enchantment (2000)

This is a fine entry point to Giant Sand, containing its most commercially pleasing tracks, although it was vilified for being too alternative by the band’s record label at the time. Shiver in particular is a standout not just on this album, but across all 16 albums. It is also the best value of the reissues, giving you much more bang for your buck with the addition of an extra CD, called The Rock Opera Years that is made up of demo versions and other tracks from the time.

There’s a sadness surrounding the album. It was to be the last featuring the classic Giant Sand line up of Burns and Convertino. It also followed the death of Ptacek, something that deeply effected Gelb, who handed much of the mixing and producing duties over to John Parish, the Bristol based producer behind much of PJ Harvey’s best work. Ptacek’s presence is across the album and his beautiful slide appears on track 16, Shrine. Parish’s influence also makes this such a treat, mixing styles and even some of his local Bristol trip hop experimentation.

The Love Songs (1988)

This fourth Giant Sand album is arguably where they found their sound. At times the previous three releases sounded a little too similar to other bands of the time. Debut Valley of  Rain for example has Gelb’s unmistakable voice, but also generic chorus effect on guitar, which pretty much every alternative rock band had at the time. The Love Songs, featuring the classic line up of Burns and Convertino, as well as Gelb’s then wife and former bassist with The Go-Gos Paula Jean Brown, certainly has one of the strongest collection of songs.

The explosive  rock of Mountain of Love and the wah-wah peddle drenched Love Like A Train are among many highlights. There’s some great covers on here as well, such as Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? and a bonus track of the band’s bizarre Run DMC-ish version of Smokey Robinson’s Get Ready. As with Chore of Enchantment part of The Love Songs’ charm is the breadth of styles, with Almost The Politician’s Wife’s acoustic guitar blues and keyboards from Green on Red’s Chris Cacavas perfectly augmenting the album’s more traditional rock and crazier  moments. For very good reason The Love Songs was named in our Top 100 Indie and Alternative Music Albums list.

 Centre of the Universe (1992)

Centre of the universe is one of Howe Gelb’s favourite Giant Sand albums. It’s probably my favourite of the 16. The album, which was written in a one-room, desert cabin near Joshua Tree  and recorded in Venice, California, holds a special place in his heart as it marked the “last time I could work like this, before the advent of family life was to take over and populate the day…this record marks the final time of isolation with a happy careless abandon and an immediate urgency delivered by a wired up acoustic guitar with stomp box distortion ready and willing”.

For me its so good because its unmistakable Giant Sand  laced with the grunge influences of the day, from Nirvana to Superchunk to The Lemonheads, and features sumptuous backing vocals from The Psycho Sisters – backing vocalists for hire at the time made up of former Bangle Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill. It’s a great combination with their backing vocals on tracks such as Loretta and the Insect World elevating what is already a fantastic alternative country album to a new level. The classic line up features here as well, as Gelb’s distorted guitar blends perfectly with Convertino’s drumming, Burns’ double bass and Giant Sand regular Chris Cacavas’s organ. The reissue features a remastering that Gelb is particularly impressed with for  the added oomph it gives to The Psycho Sisters’s contribution, which he describes as “more vibrant and alluring.”

Is All Over The Map (2004)

When Burns and Convertino left Giant sand in 2000 to focus full time on Calexico the future of the band looked in doubt. Gelb meandered for a few years, released an interesting covers album under the Giant Sand name called Cover Magazine in 2002 and a year or so later found himself in Denmark scouting for musicians for  a solo record. Turns out that those he found were more than just a backing band with Gelb signing up  slide mandolin player and guitarist Anders Pederson, bassist Thoger T Lund and drummer Peter Deombernowsky to become the core Giant Sand line up that remains to this day.

John Parish was brought back in to produce and the result is classic Giant Sand, a range of styles, a warmth, great backing vocals and some fine tunes. Among those contributing were the late Vic Chesnutt, Henriette Sennenval and Marie Frank on backing vocals. Gelb’s daughter, who was 16 at the time, also gets a turn on a very wild west version of Anarchy in the UK. Gelb says that opener Classico is the only “real song”. He’s wrong of course, as the frantic Remote, the beautiful Cracklin Water and the Lou Reed-esque NYC of Time are all great songs as well. With Gelb even singing in French on Les Forcats Innocents and locations across Europe getting a mention Gelb’s world view of music was formalised with this release. Those that liked Centre of the Universe are likely to adore this album.

by Joe Lepper


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Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies – Alegrías

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Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies – Alegrías

Posted on 06 June 2011 by Joe

Giant Sand frontman and solo artist Howe Gelb is now into his fifth decade of making music but his sense of creativity is far from drying up.

Arguably his output is as fresh now as when he started recording punk songs on a four track in the late 1970s. His global view of music helps and on his latest release he has spent the last two years visiting Spain to merge his unique brand of Americana with the region’s gypsy music.

As with Neonfiller Top 100 album Sno’ Angel Like you, in which he teamed up with Canada’s Voices of Praise gospel choir, the genre crossing on Alegrias works beautifully.

Respect is key to Gelb’s work with musicians and as with Voices of Praise he clearly bows down to the skill of the gypsy musicians he has assembled, giving them time and space to  weave their music around his desert ballads of hanging judges and gunfighters to create something wholly unique.

This is particularly the case with the guitarist Raimondo Amador, whose work brings an added touch of class to this album.

Among our highlights are ‘Notoriety’ and ‘Blood Orange’, both tracks featuring superb backing vocals from Prin La La and Lonna Kelley respectively.

Another is the signature track ‘Cowboy Boots on Cobble Stones’, which you can imagine Gleb writing as he walks around Cordoba, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

While Gelb is rooted in the Americana sections of record stores, it is not a tag he particularly likes, especially as he has a far broader focus on music. It is little wonder that on his website he simple refers to himself as ‘from Earth’. We look forward to his next musical destination with interest.


by Joe Lepper


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Top 100 Albums (90-81)

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Top 100 Albums (90-81)

Posted on 29 March 2011 by Joe

Everyone has their own Top 100 Albums list, but this is ours based on our love of alternative and independent music over the years. There are some albums here that you will have seen on many lists before but we’ve also opted for some obscurities with the aim of highlighting some different music for you to seek out.

We have been releasing this list ten at a time every Friday.  Here’s the first instalment (100-91) We hope you enjoy this second instalment. Also, for  more great albums visit our  Classic Albums section

90. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance

Pere Ubu were one of oddest punk bands to come out of the scene in late 70s America. Lead by the caterwauling vocals of Oliver Hardy lookalike David Thomas they made a noise unlike anyone else. The rhythms were tight, the guitars fierce and the songs absurd and poignant at once. They have released a dozen excellent records through a long career, but their debut is still the best of the bunch. They manage to set a standard for punk, art rock and avant-pop in one fell swoop. From the fierce yet catchy assault of ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ to the more challenging ‘Humor Me’ this is a groundbreaking and fascinating record.

89. Darren Hayman – Pramtown

Ex-Hefner frontman Darren Hayman is one of the UK’s best folk artists, although as he points out on his Facebook site “everybody else would say indie”. This first part in a trilogy about Essex, which topped our Albums of 2009  list, focuses on Harlow. The town provides an excellent backdrop for his  stories about love on Essex commuter trains and those living in its sterile new town estates.  The follow up Essex Arms, which focuses on the county’s rural life, is wonderful as well, but as the first in the trilogy this will always have a special place in our hearts.

88.  New Pornographers – Twin Cinema

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

Carl (AC) Newman is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. With his band, the New Pornographers, he has released a string of power pop classics that have delighted the critics but evaded the public consciousness. Twin Cinema followed two brilliant albums but managed to raise the bar in terms of quality alternative guitar pop. Aided by Neko Case (who is the best guitar pop singer since Debbie Harry), Destroyer’s Dan Bejar (who contributes a downbeat counterpoint to Newman’s sweeter melodies) and an ensemble of superb musicians the quality stays high from start to finish. There isn’t a bad song on the album but the coupling of ‘We Are The Fables’ and ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ takes some beating.

87. Howe Gelb – Sno Angel Like You

In 2006 Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb travelled to Canada, teamed up with Arcade Fire drummer  Jeremy Gara and the Voices of Praise gospel choir and made this breathtaking album. Blending gospel with Gelb’s more traditional bar room Arizona tunes was a masterstroke as Voices of Praise’s vocals drift in and out, even taking the listener by surprise at times. Great tunes, great vocals and one of the best mixes of genres in our list.

86. Thin White Rope – Sack Full Of Silver

Thin White Rope - Sack Full of Silver

How Thin White Rope didn’t end up being an alternative household name like Nick Cave or The Flaming Lips is one of the mysteries of modern music. Lead by the fierce vocals of Guy Kyser they produced a desert rock sound that fitted with the mood of Green on Red or Giant Sand, but was altogether darker and more psychedelic. Sack Full of Silver, their fourth album, was their most coherent and fully realised set of songs. The album sounds like it was recorded lost on the road in a desert, and the feeling of loss and desperation make it a challenging listen. This is tempered but a beauty to the music and a sense of hope. ‘Triangle’ is the centrepiece of the album and one of the great lost songs of the 1990s, sad, weird and beautiful all at once.

85. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

This 2009 album catapulted Animal Collective into the big time, giving their oddball take on electronic music a whole bunch of new fans and  mainstream credibility for the first time. It is a  success  that is well deserved as tracks such as ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’ emerge as wonderful alternate reality pop hits. Warm and melodic amid the bleeps and swirling loops this album is part Flaming Lips, part Beach Boys, part Ibiza club and is another example of how well genres can be merged.

84.  Super Furry Animals  – Guerilla

Super Furry Animals  - Guerilla

Super Furry Animals came along at the tail end of Britpop but their distinctly Welsh mix of psychedelia, 60s pop and dance music had little in common with their contemporaries. Guerrilla is an eclectic mix of all their influences which manages, against the odds, to sound like a cohesive album. The trio of singles, ‘Do Or Die’, ‘Fire In My Heart’ and (best of all) ‘Northern Lites’ are as good as anything that hit the charts in the late 1990s. The fact that this album has another 10 top quality songs shows how strong a record it is.

83. That Petrol Emotion Manic Pop thrill

Formed in 1984 and including former Undertones brothers Damien and John O Neil, Northern Ireland’s That Petrol Emotion were one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the UK alternative music scene at the time.  It took a couple of years for this their debut album to be released but it was worth the wait. Pop savvy song writing, matched with inventive guitar playing and lead singer Steve Mack’s energy made this a stunning debut. Highlights include the single ‘It’s a Good Thing’ and centrepiece track ‘Lifeblood’.

82. Beulah – When Your Heartstrings Break

Beulah - When Your Heartstrings Break

Beulah are part of Elephant 6 collective (read more about that here), but they stand apart from the other bands by demonstrating a talent for simple classic pop. The first song I heard from this their sophomore album was the brilliant ‘Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand’ and I was blown away by what I heard. A slow dreamy intro moves into fuzzy guitars, before a Dexy’s style horn section ties everything together. The rest of the album is just as good and manages to achieve the feat of sounding completely new and classic all at once.

81. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak

US punk/indie rock outfit Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have released six studio albums since 1999 but Hearts of Oak from 2003 remains  their best, most consistent album. There’s some great singles on this, such as ‘Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone’, but it’s the power and passion of Leo’s writing and vocals as well as the mix of reggae, ska, politics and punk across the  tracks that make this such a stunning listen.

by Joe Lepper and Dorian Rogers

Top 100 (100-91)Top 100 (80-71)


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